Interview with Sheriff Gregory Ahern
Sheriff Gregory Ahern, a lifelong resident of Alameda County, can tell you what the community in Ashland and Cherryland looked like and felt like when he was growing up. In his day, there were parks, playgrounds, swimming pools, sports facilities, movie theatres, restaurants, bowling alleys, and even a local newspaper that covered high school athletics. Together, these institutions engaged the community and contributed to the kind of strong social fabric that is needed to support a healthy, safe, thriving community. In Ahern’s day, people took pride in their neighborhoods. They weren’t afraid to send their kids off to school. They had hope for the future.
Over the years, the institutions disappeared. Factories and small businesses left and took the jobs with them. Parks and swimming pools were replaced by concrete structures and pawn shops. Public safety became a concern. The area lacked the vibrancy and the vital services that must be present to support a healthy, productive community.
Today, it’s the Sheriff’s job to keep the community safe, but doing so requires a new way of operating, not only to make a dent in crime and recidivism, but also to engage at a deeper level with the people who live in the unincorporated communities. Under Ahern’s watch, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) and DSAL have worked hard to reinstill pride and reinvest in the institutions that make a community whole through a revolutionary approach to public safety, called Community Capitals Policing, which fits squarely within the Sheriff’s four pillars—prevention, enforcement, programs, and service—that guide his approach to policing and public safety.
Ahern, who practiced martial arts for 40 years, is particularly keen on the many recreational activities Community Capitals Policing provides for youth and families.
“I'm not aware of anybody else who’s doing the amount of work that we’re doing to allow people, and especially kids in their formative years, to be involved in positive physical activities, like soccer, like dance, like boxing, like all of the programs that we have for them to socialize with individuals their same age and abilities,” said Ahern.
“And that, I believe, does two things,” he said. “When they are involved in those activities, they are not being victims of crimes, and they're not being suspects of crimes. So it's beneficial to the entire area. It gives them a foundation, a base. There are rules to dancing. There are rules to boxing. There are rules to soccer. There's authority they get to listen to. They learn how to compete. They learn how to win. They learn how to lose. They do that in a group setting, and even the drum line, there's discipline, and I'm all for it.”
Ahern recognizes that when kids get involved, their parents often get involved, too.
“Moms and dads who have brought their children to be involved in the recreational programs end up in the program themselves,” he said. “They start boxing, jogging, improving their fitness. Their fitness adds to their health, and those are some of the things that contribute to safer, more active neighborhoods.”
The Sheriff’s job—protecting public safety—is complicated and complex, and it’s become even more challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“You build the public’s trust by actually meeting people, getting out, talking to people, letting them get to know you as you get to know members of your community. And with COVID, we're teaching our people to keep a safe distance—don't go into anyone’s house, don't get close, make sure you stand six feet apart—all those things that create barriers instead of breaking down barriers. COVID has had a major, major effect on almost everything that we do.”
“A lot of people enter law enforcement with the ambitious goal to help people, and to help those that absolutely need help. By providing food and meals to hungry people, we are doing the work that we signed up to do, to help people and provide a better environment for them while they live in our community.”
– Gregory Ahern, Alameda County Sheriff
COVID has also required ACSO and DSAL to shift their approach to Community Capitals Policing by moving recreational activities online, providing free groceries to food-insecure families, and delivering more than 150,000 fresh, nutritious meals to seniors and other vulnerable populations. According to Ahern, there’s a direct line between food security, policing, and public safety.
“A lot of people enter law enforcement with the ambitious goal to help people, and to help those that absolutely need help,” said Ahern. “By providing food and meals to hungry people, we are doing the work that we signed up to do, to help people and provide a better environment for them while they live in our community.”
“If you're hungry, you are going to go out and obtain food, and then crime will obviously go up,” he said. “So by providing food to people, we can reduce that absolute need, we can improve their health by giving them good food, and we can provide jobs for people who deliver the food.”
“DSAL is doing work that nobody else is doing that should be replicated throughout the nation,” said Ahern.